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Bears Mon Aug 11 2014

Linebacker Unit is the Bears' New Defensive Weakness

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for GB bears icon.pngAfter a disastrous season from the defense, Bears general manager Phil Emery knew he'd have to rebuild the unit on the fly. The second highest scoring offense in the NFL isn't young enough to wait multiple years while the other side of the roster is constructed from scratch.

The GM brought back his Pro Bowl-caliber corners in Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman along with drafting Kyle Fuller in the first round as the long-term heir. And though he didn't spend much money at safety, the Bears will more than likely start the season with three new players out of the four they typically roster on game day. Adrian Wilson and Ryan Mundy have been solid in camp (and in Friday's preseason tilt), and rookie fourth rounder Brock Vereen has made a few plays as well.

In an effort to fix the defense by upgrading a pair of positional groups, Emery went after some of the best defensive linemen on the market. A unit marred by injuries and ineffectiveness in 2013, the Bears spent most of the post-Cutler money on veterans who can get to the quarterback. Lamarr Houston, Willie Young, and Jared Allen all fit that bill, and are also dependable in the run game. The front office didn't stop there, though. In the second and third rounds of the draft, the team added Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton to mix. Though you hope injuries never happen, the Bears should be able to withstand a pulled muscle or two up front this year without falling off a cliff talent-wise.

What about the linebacker unit? James Anderson, arguably the most consistent guy at the position last season, didn't have his contract renewed. D.J. Williams is back in the fold, but he's had a hard time staying on the field the last few seasons. Lance Briggs was his usual self in 2013 before a shoulder injury put him out for almost double the games (seven) that he had missed in his entire career (four) before that. The only addition was Jordan Senn from Carolina, who's seen more as a special teams ace then a legitimate competitor for a starting job.

The plan going into this season is for Briggs to play all the time on the weak side, Williams to play the middle in base packages, and either Bostic or the converted Shea McClellin to start at the strong side, with Bostic playing alongside Briggs in nickel coverage. Despite the idea that a strong defensive front can make up for mediocre play behind it, the Bears linebacker situation could turn the defense sour very quickly.

If the first preseason game is evidence of what's to come, it could be a long year in the middle of the defense. Briggs was his usual excellent self, and Williams was fine in his minimal snaps, but the problems arose with the younger players. McClellin was flat out awful, missing tackles, getting blocked to the ground on running plays, and faring badly in coverage pretty much the whole night. Cutting him is a legitimately valid consideration unless he starts making some plays in the next few preseason games. He looked just as lost at linebacker as he did at defensive end the past two years.

Bostic struggled most of last season as a rookie who wasn't quite sure what to do, and Bears linebackers coach Reggie Herring along with defensive coordinator Mel Tucker simplified his responsibilities. He was in the right spots a few times on Friday night, but rarely was able to finish a play, and got beat over the top a few times in coverage -- not something you want to see from your middle linebacker in nickel.

The only young player who really stood out was Khaseem Greene, who looks lighter and significantly faster this year compared to his rough rookie season. He was gifted that fumble recovery, but was filling gaps, making plays and was around the ball when he needed to be. The problem is he plays weak side linebacker -- Briggs' position. Maybe if he plays well enough, the team will try to fit him in elsewhere to get their best players on the field, but that's no guarantee. Rookie free agents Christian Jones and DeDe Lattimore weren't too bad in their debuts, but they're either fighting for one roster spot, or a spot on the team's practice squad.

Without bringing in any impact or depth at linebacker during the offseason, the Bears have left themselves incredibly thin again. They might scour the waiver wire to find some suitable depth, but the idea of finding a guy that could step in a make plays that way is often a fool's errand. An injury to Briggs or Williams could turn a defense the team expects to be above-average in 2014 into another chase-fest. The last three preseason games will be used to hopefully find an internal answer. Hopefully either Bostic or McClellin can show some improvement and at least be average, or the Bears are going to find themselves struggling at linebacker for a second year in a row.

Notebook Dump

Quarterback: Though Jimmy Clausen shined statistically over Jordan Palmer in their battle for the backup job Friday night, the breakdown of their play shows a pretty similar performance.

Palmer suffered from being behind some offensive linemen who had terrible individual performances (Joe Long and Dennis Roland being the main culprits), and his one interception can be chalked up to the big men in front of him. Other than the pick, Palmer made a few nice reads and moved the ball like you'd hope a backup would. The one major disappointment on the night is that he didn't throw a tight ball very often. Wobbly passes can turn into interceptions quite quickly against NFL starters.

Clausen's 73-yard touchdown strike to Chris Williams was extremely impressive because of the audible at the line and perfect throw, but an uncalled delay of game penalty taints the great play. It's rare for the referee crew to miss a call like that, and you can bet that it would've been flagged in the regular season. The stripes also missed an intentional grounding call on a Clausen throwaway as well. Poor throws on a sure touchdown and ensuing two-point conversion were definite minuses as well.

On the positive side, Clausen went through his receiver progressions quickly and efficiently, and threw to the correct receiver on all but one play. He showed great pocket awareness and nice speed and quickness on his rush for a first down when the blocking collapsed around him. He probably has the slight edge on the competition because he's younger and has more playing experience, but he'll have to keep the pressure on as a late signing and a guy who doesn't have full understanding of the playbook yet.

As for David Fales, I have a hard time seeing the Bears carrying him as a third QB on the roster. I can't see another NFL team signing him to their 53-man roster if he doesn't make the team out of camp, and that means they can stash him on the practice squad. He'd have to play nearly flawless football the rest of the preseason to make the roster in my opinion.

Special Teams: It was a bad game on nearly every front for the special teams unit. Bad snaps, poor punts, a blocked field goal, and return touchdown allowed are all head-shaking on their own, and utterly mind-blowing when it all happens in the same game. Sure, Joe DeCamillis had to deal with injuries to his group last year just like the other units, but with a full slate of healthy players, you'd expect a much better performance. I'm not sold on DeCamillis being able to fix the problems, and you're likely to see wildly inconsistent play from the special teams all season wrong. Hopefully that won't be the case, but it's the best bet at this point. Chicago misses you, Dave Toub.

 

Matt / August 12, 2014 10:14 AM

Amazing how much can change in a few years. I'm optimistic for this year though! Great write up.

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